Word of the Week: Feierabend

Mar 16, 2012

Every Friday, Germany.info and The Week in Germany highlight a different "Word of the Week" in the German language that may serve to surprise, delight or just plain perplex native English speakers.


After work Germans wish each other a nice "Feierabend," as workers would in this Stuttgart factory (2004). Enlarge image (© dpa - Fotoreport)

"Feierabend" means "quittin' time" in German. When the workday comes to a close, Germans will often wish each other "einen schönen Feierabend" - a nice "celebratory evening."

Although this may sound quite dramatic, it really is a very ordinary expression which dates back, however, to far more festive origins.

Way back when the term "Feierabend" - composed of the nouns "Feier" (celebration) and "Abend" (evening) - was used only to denote the "Vorabend," or evening before, a "Feiertag" (holiday).

The Latin origin of the word is derived from "fēria" (free day), a day on which the people, especially the slaves, were not obliged to work, and on which there were no court sessions. This then evolved in "Althochdeutsch" (Old High German) into "fira" to connote "Fest" or "Ruhe" - a celebration or rest, which in Christian terms usually was associated with church or prayer services.

This expression ("fira") subsequently evolved in "Mittelhochdeutsch" (Middle High German) into "vîre," to denote a festive day or a day of rest, which in turn later morphed into the "Neuhochdeutsch" (New High German) expression "Feier" (celebration/party/ceremony/reception).

From the 12th century onwards, moreover, "vîr-âbent" was used to express the evening prior to a "Feiertag" (holiday). This same expression then shifted in "Frühneuhochdeutsch" (Early Modern High German), under the influence of the language of "Handwerker" (craftsmen), to a broader meaning that came to define the "(Beginn der) Ruhezeit am Abend" (the beginning of the period of rest in the evening).

A hard hangs on a wall at a Frankfurt construction site in 2008. Enlarge image (© dpa - Report)

The concept of a "Feierabend" dates back to at least Roman Times, when "calatores" (derived from the Greek verb "kalein" - to call), who were essentally public slaves acting as assistants to senior priests of the state, would call out a "Feierabend" to free workers related to, for instance, a planned spiritual sacrifical ritual.

Before people wore watches and owned clocks, an evening call to prayer via church bells rung around 6 p.m. would signal to workers that their day of toil was over, a tradition that continues to this day in some Catholic parts of Europe.

Aside from communal prayers, many evening traditions, or "Feierabendbräuche," were spawned from the 17th to 19th centuries, including the sharing of "Feierabend" stories and songs. In the former communist East Germany, or German Democratic Republic (GDR), nursing homes were moreover referred to as "Feierabendheime" (Feierabend Homes).

Feierabend Expressions in German

  • Schönen Feierabend! - Have a nice Feierabend!
  • Jetzt machen wir aber Feierabend! - This is a synonym for: Jetzt haben wir genug gearbeitet/Now we have worked enough.
  • Jetzt ist (aber) Feierabend! (Short version: Feierabend!) - This is used to connote a more irritable "I'm fed up, now it's quittin' time!"
  • Jetzt hat er seinen verdienten Feierabend. (Now he will have his well-earned Feierabend.) - This means he has earned his retirement.
  • Feierabend machen. - This is the grimmest expression, as it literally means "to die."
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